Vale – Peter Chapman, Australian Comic-Book Artist (1925-2016)

chapman_fotoPeter Chapman, a veteran Australian comic-book artist, died on June 22, 2016, in his  hometown of Narrabri, New South Wales, where he had lived and taught art since 1971. He was 91 years old.

Chapman’s career spanned the “golden age” of Australian comics, first working as a comic-book writer and artist for Frank Johnson Publications (Sydney) in the mid-1940s. In time, he became one of the most prolific comic-book artists of the post-war era, but he is best known for his enduring association with Frew Publications, which has published the Australian edition of The Phantom since 1948, making it the oldest, longest-running Phantom comic magazine in the world.

In the early 1950s, Chapman took over as writer and illustrator of The Phantom Ranger and The Shadow, both of which were originally created for Frew Publications by expatriate British artist, Jeff Wilkinson, in 1949-1950. Chapman’s work on The Phantom Ranger was reprinted under license in the United Kingdom in the 1950s, while his version of The Shadow – no relation to the famous American pulp-magazine hero of the same name – was translated into Portuguese for the Brazilian market during this period as well.

sir-falcon-9-frewChapman also created, wrote and illustrated Sir Falcon, another popular superhero title for Frew Publications, which was heavily modelled on The Phantom, which still remained the company’s best-selling title. Chapman also drew occasional covers for the regular series of The Phantom comic magazine, along with cover illustrations for Giant Size Phantom Comic in the late 1950s.

Chapman remained as writer-artist on Sir Falcon, The Phantom Ranger, and The Shadow, until the early 1960s, when Frew Publications began scaling back its range of Australian-drawn comics to focus on their best-selling title, The Phantom, and other licensed reprints of American comics. The Phantom Ranger and The Shadow remained in publication until the early 1970s, albeit comprised of reprints of earlier editions, many of which were originally drawn by Chapman.

Following the collapse of Australia’s comic-book industry in the early 1960s, Chapman turned to commercial illustration, initially working as  greeting card illustrator for John Sands, and producing book illustrations for selected Australian publishers. After relocating to Narrabri, New South Wales, in 1971, Chapman took up art instruction at regional TAFE (Technical and Further Education) colleges, and toured regional New South Wales as a self-employed art teacher.

Peter Chapman received a Ledger of Honour, in recognition of his lifetime contribution to Australian comics, at the Ledger Awards held in Melbourne, Australia, on April 15, 2016. You can read my 2007 interview with Peter Chapman at ChronicleChamber.com. Chapman was interviewed on film by curator Dr Peter Doyle (Macquarie University) for the Pulp Confidential exhibition held at the State Library of New South Wales in 2015 (Peter Chapman photo courtesy of Lambiek. Sir Falcon cover image courtesy of AusReprints).

Phantom Logic @ Hopscotch Friday

adventures_3Following Nat Karmichael’s recent comments about Frew Publications and The Phantom, and their place in Australian comics culture, comic-book writer and pop culture observer Emmet O’Cuana has posted a timely rebuttal on the Hopscotch Friday website/blog (You can read this piece, titled “Phantom Logic”, here). While this debate will most likely be of greatest interest to Australian comic books, I think it’s also a good example of how The Phantom – who is, after all, an American-created hero – has come to assume far greater cultural significance beyond the United States. There have been very few countries in Europe, Latin America and Asia which have not, at various times, published localised editions of The Phantom since the end of World War Two. However, it could be argued that The Phantom has enjoyed greater popularity, and wielded far greater commercial& cultural influence, in Australia, Sweden and (to a lesser extent) India, than any other country (or group of countries). Read, learn, and enjoy, Phantom “phans”! (Image courtesy of The Deep Woods website).

“My Phantom Thoughts” – Nat Karmichael

s127889837681023_p16_i9_w756Nat Karmichael is undeniably passionate about Australian comics. For decades now, he’s endeavoured to provide outlets for Australian writers and illustrators, in order to showcase the best contemporary – and “classic” – Australian comics, and introduce their work to the wider public whose main exposure to comics comes from overseas. Nat’s latest project is a comic-book anthology, titled “Oi, Oi, Oi”, which has just gone on sale through newsagents across Australia with its sixth issue. Like most people who are deeply interested in Australian comics (whether they’re writers, artists, readers and/or collectors), Nat is all too aware of how the Australian edition of The Phantom – produced by Frew Publications (Sydney, New South Wales) –  continues to dominate the Australian comics landscape, as it has done so for several decades now. Indeed, as I’ve discovered in the course of my own research, many Australians used to believe that The Phantom was an Australian-drawn comic book! But Nat wants to challenge that perception, and has written an interesting essay about The Phantom, and its contribution to Australian comics on his Comicoz website, which can be read here. It’s fascinating, provocative reading, and bound to generate debate amongst Phantom “phans” throughout Australia.

Frew’s Phantom Cover Makeovers

The Phantom comic book, like all forms of genre-bound entertainment, adheres to a formula which blends novelty and familiarity in near-equal measure. We know that, in most instances, when we open an issue of The Phantom, there is a good chance the story will be set in the jungles of Bangalla; that “The Ghost Who Walks” will be confronted by a new threat to himself, his family, or to the jungle domain he is duty-bound to protect; and that, after surmounting overwhelming odds or dangerous obstacles, The Phantom will use his quick wits, finely-honed instincts and sheer physical strength to overcome evildoers (whose jaws will, at some point, come into contact with the Skull Ring worn on his right fist).

In the Australian context, part of the enduring appeal of The Phantom comic  magazine (produced continually by Frew Publications since September 1948) must be attributed to its regularity (each new issue goes on sale every fortnight with clockwork regularity), its ubiquity (there would be very few newsagents or newsstands in Australia which didn’t stock this comic), and – at least until the mid-1980s – its visual familiarity. Since the early 1950s, Frew Publications seldom departed from its tried & tested cover design formula, wherein the reddish-orange “Phantom” logo would be plastered across the uniform blue backdrop, punctuated by the barest hint of background detail – the hint of jungle foliage, the deck of a boat, or a glimpse of a brick wall. The purple-costumed Phantom stood out in stark relief against this purposefully bland background, which was no doubt a useful sales technique which ensured that The Phantom got noticed amidst the once-crowded comic book sections of retail newsagency outlets and on newsstand racks.

Yet even within this limited visual palette, Frew Publications began updating the visual appearance of The Phantom throughout the 1960s, arguably in response to increased competition from full-colour, imported American comic books, which had been readmitted to Australian shores in 1960, after a wartime ban on their importation(imposed in 1939-1940) had been lifted after two decades. While Frew Publications freely adapted cover designs used on contemporaneous American editions of The Phantom, only rarely did the company reprint any actual stories from these 1960s-era American editions (It is most likely that Frew Publications would have used its exclusive rights to publish The Phantom comic book in Australia – secured from King Feature Syndicate’s Australian representatives, the Yaffa Syndicate – to ensure that these American versions of The Phantom were not resold in Australia). Consider the following comparison between (left) The Phantom, No.11 (Gold Key/Western Publishing, 1965), and (right) The Phantom, No.349 (Frew Publications, 1967):

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The cover on the left, rendered in vibrant colour, was painted by acclaimed American illustrator, George Wilson. The cover on the right clearly borrowed the foreground figures from the Gold Key edition, but Frew’s (anonymous) cover artist dispensed with the dramatic background created by Wilson, in favour of the featureless blue backdrop. Frew Publications was still using paper covers on The Phantom, which could not adequately reproduce the rich, four-colour artwork seen on the glossy-covered Gold Key comic. This was entirely in keeping with Frew’s frugal production values, which relied on a limited palette of bold, flat covers – such as purple, green and orange – which could be printed on flimsy paper covers.

Frew Publications would, on occasion, attempt to reproduce the full-colour American cover designs more faithfully, while omitting some visual elements which bore no relation to the contents of a specific issue of The Phantom, as seen in these two covers. Once again, the cover on the left (The Phantom, No 7, Gold Key/Western Publishing, 1964) is painted by George Wilson. Frew Publications’ (again, uncredited) cover artist has redrawn Wilson’s design as a black-line illustration, but has removed the background figures of the “super apes” appearing in the American story. The issue shown here (No.350, 1967) actually contained two entirely different Phantom stories: “The Marshall Sisters” (Part 1) and “Adventure in Algiers” (Part 1).

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Why did Frew Publications freely adapt elements of these Gold Key cover designs, without reproducing any of the interior stories for their Australian readers? Oddly enough, Frew Publications did reprint two Gold Key stories – “The Rattle” and “The Test” (originally published in The Phantom, No.2 [1963], and each drawn by Bill Lignante) – in The Phantom (No.236), back in 1963. I suspect it was because the Gold Key stories – which typically ran between 12-15 pages each – were not sufficiently long enough to flesh out Frew’s 32-page editions (which carried little or no advertising), and thus required more pages of artwork per issue. Cost may have also been a factor – did the licensing fees for using these newer American stories, prepared specifically for comic magazines, greatly exceed the licensing fees incurred to reproduce older newspaper strip episodes of The Phantom?

Whatever the reason, these austere adaptations of American cover designs did, in their own way, reflect Frew Publications’ modest efforts to update and modernise the outward appearance of The Phantom comic book. It could be argued that this process began when Frew first published the work of American artist, Sy Barry, who bought a more dramatic and realistic style to The Phantom newspaper comic strip in 1961 (Barry’s first daily newspaper Phantom story, “The Slave Market of Mucar”, was reprinted by Frew Publications in The Phantom, Nos.212-213 [1962]). This continued to be the case throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, as Frew Publications took greater efforts to produce more “modern” cover designs that mirrored Barry’s dynamic, muscular interpretation of The Phantom (Frew would often use Barry’s artwork as the basis for their cover designs). The way it did so was a reflection of the enforced economies of Australia’s comic-book publishing industry, which by this time was struggling to compete with television, radio and popular music for the attention of the youth audience that increasingly spurned comics in favour of more exciting forms of electronic entertainment (mages courtesy of Comic Vine, the Grand Comics Database and MyComicShop.com).

Tribute to John Dixon (1929-2015) – Frew Publications comic artist

5454592_origI have belatedly learned of the recent death of John Dangar Dixon (pictured left, early 1970s), one of Australia’s leading comic artists, who died in Bonsall, California, on 7 May 2015. His name may not be widely known amongst Australian “phans” of The Phantom, but during his long career, John Dixon made a memorable, although brief, contribution to Frew Publications, the Australian company responsible for producing the world’s longest-running edition of The Phantom comic book.

Although he was arguably best known for the internationally syndicated newspaper comic strip, Air Hawk & the Flying Doctor (1959-1986), Dixon enjoyed his earliest success as a comic-book author and illustrator, creating the aviator-adventure series, Tim Valour Comic (pictured below), for publisher H.J. Edwards (Sydney, Australia) in 1948. This was soon followed by a costumed superhero series, The Crimson Comet, created for the same publisher in 1949. Both titles would go on to become two of Australia’s longest-running, and best-selling comic book series, and each were exported to Great Britain during the 1950s – a remarkable achievement for any Australian comic book, then and now.

7272707_origRon Forsyth, one of the co-founders of Frew Publications – which has published the Australian edition of The Phantom since 1948 – was impressed by Dixon’s work and hired him to redesign and relaunch one the company’s earlier superhero titles, Catman, in 1958. Dixon also drew several issues of Sir Falcon, a modern-day knight created by Peter Chapman (which was heavily modelled on The Phantom) during the late 1950s. Dixon also illustrated several covers for Frew’s Giant Size Phantom Comic during this period, but sadly, never had the opportunity to draw his own version of The Phantom. Yet as these cover illustrations show, Dixon’s interpretation of “The Ghost Who Walks” would have been nothing less than terrific and, in my opinion, easily matched the early work of American comics artist Sy Barry, who would take over drawing The Phantom newspaper comic strip in the early 1960s (see below). I have written a brief tribute to John Dixon on my companion blog, Comics Down Under, but I would also refer readers to Queensland publisher Nat Karmichael’s tribute to John Dixon, who will be remembered as one of the finest comic-book illustrators of his generation (Images courtesy of Comicoz and The Deep Woods websites).

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Do Australian Superheroes Exist?

largethumbThat’s the question posed in an article by Naomi Kopp at Vibewire.org. Both myself and fellow PhD candidate, Amy Maynard (University of Adelaide), were interviewed for this story to provide insights about the historical development of Australia’s comic-book industry, and the current “state of play” for Australian comics, graphic novels, their creators and their audiences. Amy is examining how hard-copy (printed) comic books are currently produced in Australia, and her thesis will consider current publishing processes, funding models, marketing and distribution issues. As part of her thesis, Amy is also surveying Australian readers about their comics/graphic novel reading preferences, and their attitudes towards Australian comics.You can complete her survey – which is totally private and anonymous – here.

The title of the Vibewire article nonetheless poses an intriguing rhetorical question, especially when it comes to The Phantom. Several respondents to The Phantom Comic-Book Survey remarked that they considered “The Ghost Who Walks” to be a “domestic” comic-book hero, who in some ways reflected either their own country’s sense of national identity or character, regardless of whether they were Swedish, Indian or Australian. The perception that The Phantom was somehow an indigenous comic book was also influenced by the magazine’s physical format, distribution and overall appearance – the fact that these international editions of The Phantom did not superficially resemble imported American comics reinforced the idea that it was, indeed, a “local” comic-book.

(The accompanying image is of Captain Atom No.58, published by Atlas Publications [Melbourne, Australia], dating from circa.1952. Launched in 1948, the Australian version of Captain Atom was one of the country’s most popular comics of the post-war era, selling over 1 million copies in its first year of publication. Image courtesy of Comic Book Plus.)